22 Aug 2014
Intel is preparing to release its next generation Xeon processors for workstations and servers, and many vendors are gearing up with new systems in the pipeline ready to launch when the chips themselves are officially available.
One such firm is Boston Limited, which allowed us a preview of some of the updated systems it has waiting in the wings until the official launch date, which is coming in the near future.
Boston has a close relationship with Supermicro, and many of its systems are based on chassis designs from that vendor, with the firm offering to custom build solutions for specific requirements.
On the server side, Boston is readying a 1U rack-mount "pizza box" system, the Boston Value 360p (pictured below). This is a two-socket server with twin 10Gbps Ethernet ports, support for 64GB memory and 12Gbps SAS Raid. It can also be configured with NVM Express (NVMe) SSDs connected to the PCI Express bus rather than a standard drive interface.
Boston also has a multi-node rack server, the Quattro 12128-6 (pictured below), which comprises four separate two-socket servers inside a 2U chassis. Each node has up to 64GB memory, with 12Gbps SAS Raid storage plus a pair of 400GB SSDs.
On the workstation side, Boston is readying a mid-range and a high-end system with the new Intel Xeon chips, both based on two-socket Xeon E5-2600v3 rather than the single socket E5-1600v3 versions.
The mid-range Venom 2301-12T (pictured below) comes in a similar mid-tower chassis to the system we reviewed last year, and likewise ships with an Nvidia Quadro K4000 card for graphics acceleration. It comes with 64GB of memory and a 240GB SSD as a boot device, plus two 1TB Sata drives configured as a Raid array for data storage.
For those needing a bit more performance, the Venom 2401-12T (below) ships with faster Xeon processors, 128GB memory, and an Nvidia Quadro K6000 adapter. This also has a 240GB SSD as a boot drive, with two 2TB drives configured as a Raid array for data storage.
The Venom 2401-12T also features the CoolIT liquid cooling system attached to its processor heatsinks, enabling them to run at full clock speed for longer, according to Boston.
Finally, the new Xeon E5-2600v3 processors are designed to work with 2133MHz DDR4 memory instead of the more usual DDR3. The last picture here (above) shows a DDR3 DIMM next to a DDR4 DIMM. The DDR4 has slightly longer connectors towards the middle of the module.
14 Jul 2014
The Raspberry Pi Foundation unveiled the latest redesign of its Raspberry Pi single-board computer on Monday, as detailed by V3. The update adds a number of features but is still available at the same price from outlets such as RS Components and Farnell Element14.
Farnell Element14 was showing the device at an official launch event in London, and we went along to have a look at the new model.
The Raspberry Pi Model B+ is the same size and shape as the older Model B, as can be seen in the photo of both devices next to each other (below).
However, the new device has a number of changes, including more USB ports and a larger I/O header connector, which can also be seen in the pictures.
Having four rather than two USB ports enables more devices to be connected. On the older Pi, you could easily use up both plugging in a mouse and keyboard, unless you happened to have a USB hub or a keyboard that can daisy chain the mouse through it.
Another less visible update is to the power supply. A redesigned power regulator circuit can supply more current to the USB ports, up to a maximum of 1.2A across all four ports, enabling hardware such as USB hard drives to be powered from the Raspberry Pi, as in the picture below.
According to Element 14, this will be a boon for projects where the Raspberry Pi is being used to drive a sensor and record data from it, as the device can now have access to much greater storage than is available on an SD card.
Element 14 also showed off a new Raspberry Pi case the firm is selling via its website. Not only is this £4.76 accessory designed to snugly fit the new Model B+ device, but also the Raspberry Pi camera module (see below) that connects into the dedicated CSI connector on the Pi board.
We will report back at a later date with a more in-depth look at the new Raspberry Pi Model B+.
09 Jul 2014
Since Microsoft first entered the tablet hardware market in 2012 it has been promising users the world, claiming its Surface series of devices would be able to function equally well as both tablet and laptop.
But because of a number of niggling flaws in the first two Surface Pro tablets' design and software, they fell somewhere between the two categories and didn't fully deliver on Microsoft's promise.
As a result, when Microsoft returned to the stage earlier in May to unveil its latest Surface Pro 3 shouting the same message as before, some buyers were justifiably skeptical.
Since then these doubts have grown and many buyers have been wondering exactly what changes have been made to differentiate the Surface Pro 3 from its predecessor, the Surface Pro 2, to let it deliver on Microsoft's "one device to rule them all" promise.
Design and build
The Surface Pro 3 features a completely reworked design to previous Surface devices, with Microsoft having worked to make its new tablet as light and thin as possible.
During our tests we were impressed with the Surface Pro 3's design and found the light aluminium tablet-laptop hybrid looks a lot sharper than its predecessor. Despite featuring a larger display the Surface Pro 3 is significantly lighter and thinner than the Surface Pro 2, measuring in at 292x201x9.1mm and weighing 800g.
The Surface Pro 3
We found the thinner and lighter design makes the Surface Pro 3 feel significantly more travel friendly and comfortable to use as a tablet than the 274x173x13.5mm, 907g Surface Pro 2.
What's more impressive, though, is that even though the Surface Pro 3 has less real estate along its sides, Microsoft has still managed to load it with USB 3.0 micro SD and Mini DisplayPort inputs.
Adding the new Type Cover and putting the Surface Pro 3 in laptop mode, we were equally impressed during our early tests. Unlike the Surface Pro 2, which has a kickstand that only features two standing options, the Surface Pro 3 can be manually adjusted to stand at custom angles.
While this sounds small, it's a serious upgrade. The ability to set which angle the Surface Pro 3 stands at not only makes it easier to rest and use the device on your lap, this also makes it more pleasant to use when doing tasks such as digital painting with the device's stylus. This is because the new kickstand let us set the Surface Pro 3 to sit at the same angle as a proper drawing board or Wacom tablet PC when doodling.
Microsoft has done some good work to improve the Surface Pro 3 Type Cover's trackpad. The Surface Pro 2 Type Cover's trackpad was one of its worst features, being too small for comfortable use and featuring unresponsive capacitive right and left click buttons. Microsoft has worked hard to fix this on the Surface Pro 3's Type Cover and has made the trackpad significantly larger and added physical left- and right-click buttons.
The Surface Pro 2
During our hands on we were impressed by how much more responsive the Surface Pro 3's Type Cover was than the Pro 2's, making it easier to use as a laptop replacement when editing Word documents or loading copy into a content management system, for example.
Microsoft made a lot of fuss about the Surface Pro 3's 12in ClearType Full HD 2160x1440 resolution screen at the device's launch. Specifically Microsoft claims that, as well as being 38 percent bigger than the Surface Pro 2's 10.6in ClearType Full HD 1920x1080 resolution screen, the Surface Pro 3's 12in display is able to display twice as many pixels.
During our hands on, we did notice a clear difference in quality between the two tablets' displays and found the Surface Pro 3 is significantly sharper and clearer. That said, we did notice, like the Surface Pro 2, the Surface Pro 3's display is still slightly prone to picking up stray light.
Both the Surface Pro 3 and Surface Pro 2 run using the latest version of Microsoft's Windows 8.1 operating system. This means users will have access to key Microsoft security and productivity services, such as Office, OneDrive, OneNote and Lync.
But thanks to the inclusion of the Surface Pro 3's upgraded digital stylus, it is easier and more pleasant to take advantage of the services than it is on Microsoft's previous tablet. Unlike the Surface Pro 2's polycarbonate digitiser stylus, the Surface Pro 3 is made of metal and features a number of improved shortcut features.
OneNote is a good example of this. Unlike the Surface Pro 2, OneNote can be activated at any time, even when the tablet is in sleep mode, simply by pressing down on the stylus's rear button. Once activated the app offers a blank page for Surface Pro users to scribble notes on, and a second push of the rear button will save the notes to the user's OneDrive cloud storage account. Little touches like this made the Surface Pro 3 feel slightly slicker and easier to use than its predecessor. Hopefully we'll find more nice touches when we write our full review.
Unlike the Surface Pro 3, which is available in Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 options, the Surface Pro 2 is only available with an i5 chip. Microsoft claims that the top Intel Core i7 Surface Pro 3 option will offer 10 percent better performance than the Surface Pro 2. Sadly we didn't get a chance to test Microsoft's claim as the demo unit we tested was powered by an Intel i5 Haswell processor. We didn't get a chance to see how the Surface Pro 3 performed with demanding tasks, such as large digital painting projects or 3D gaming, but found it was nippy and responsive when doing basic tasks such as word processing.
Microsoft claims the Surface Pro 3's upgraded 5MP rear-facing camera will offer radically better imaging performance than the Surface Pro 2's 3.5MP unit. Sadly we didn't get a chance to test the Surface Pro 3's camera during our hands on, but will be sure to in our full review.
Storage and battery
Both Surfaces feature the same 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB internal storage options, though Microsoft lists the Surface Pro 3 as being able to last a full hour longer than its predecessor, listing it as offering up to nine hours of web browsing off one charge.
Thanks to its more varied chip offering the Surface Pro 3 is the more affordable option, with prices starting at £639 for the 64GB Intel Core i3 model. By comparison the 64GB Surface Pro 2 costs £720.
Having had an opening look at the Surface Pro 3 we are very impressed. Featuring a radically improved, slimmer and lighter design, a more varied array of processor options and a larger and clearer display the Surface Pro 3 feels like a serious step up from previous Microsoft tablets.
From what we've seen the Surface Pro 3 has the potential to finally make good on Microsoft's "one device to rule them all" promise. Hopefully our positive impressions will ring true once we put the Surface Pro 3 more thoroughly through its paces in our full review later this year.
By V3's Alastair Stevenson
01 Jul 2014
RS Components last week showed off a number of the 3D printers in its line-up, including newly available models from 3D Systems that enable users to print objects comprised of more than one colour. At the same event, Dr Adrian Bowyer, inventor of the RepRap, the first low-cost 3D printer, gave a talk about the implications that 3D printing may hold for manufacturing and society in general.
On show at the event in London was the RepRapPro Ormerod, the most up-to-date version of the RepRap device, along with newly available models from 3D Systems, including the third-generation Cube, and the CubePro Duo and CubeX Trio.
The third-generation Cube (below) supports simultaneous printing of two plastic colours, and can fabricate objects up to 152x152x152mm in volume. It is available from RS for £999.
Meanwhile, the larger CubePro model has a fully enclosed print area for a more controlled environment, and can produce objects of up to 275x265x240mm in size. There are three different versions capable of printing with one, two or three simultaneous plastic colours, priced at £2,359, £2,760 and £3,440, respectively. The one shown below is the CubePro Duo.
Offering similar capabilities is the CubeX model, with the CubeX Trio (below) costing £2,384. All of the 3D Systems models are capable of printing using either PLA or ABS plastic, with the Duo models also able to handle nylon. All are also able to support a layer thickness down to 70 micrometres.
In contrast, the RepRapPro Ormerod (below) is supplied in kit form for £399, and is in fact described by its creator Bowyer as an open-source device – meaning that all of the components that make up the printer can be easily sourced off the shelf (such as the motors) or manufactured using another RepRap.
A range of sample 3D objects was also on display, to demonstrate the wide range of things that can be produced by one of these printers.
These included the robotic digger shown in the picture below, which was comprised of 3D printed parts plus motors and a controller with display.
Also on show from 3D Systems was the Sense 3D scanner that enables users to capture real objects – even people's heads – and then print them out as a model.
At the event, Bowyer spoke of the wider implications of 3D printing as the technology improves and becomes more widely adopted. Overall, he expected that 3D printing would be a good thing, enabling ordinary people to become more creative and to manufacture objects for themselves that would otherwise require a factory to produce.
He was also dismissive of the notion that 3D printers would destroy industry, saying that many things will still have to be manufactured the traditional way. "We're not going to be using this to make supertankers anytime soon," he said.
While Bowyer said some business models might be threatened by the rise of 3D printing, this was just a normal part of technological progress. "When was the last time you bought a roll of photographic film?" he asked the audience. "This entire industry has disappeared, almost unremarked and unmourned."
On the question of potential copyright infringement with 3D printers, Bowyer said he "had a little bit of sympathy" for copyright holders, but compared the situation with that of the music industry and digitisation. Musicians, he said, typically aren't too bothered about copying, because they make most of their money from live performances.
"The people who have been taken out of the mix are all the people who used to live in the middle and acted as a gateway between the musicians and the public. Now that connection can be made directly," he said.
In any case, intellectual property rights did not apply to the vast majority of objects people would want to make, according to Bowyer.
"There's no patents or copyright on teaspoons or coat hooks." he said.
24 Jun 2014
Google finally launched its Glass Explorer programme in the UK on Monday, making its fabled wearable technology available to enthusiasts and developers in the region – albeit for a hefty £1,000.
Designed to help Google fix problems and develop the Glass technology before its wider global release, the Explorer Programme has been running in the US since 2012 and, according to Google, has massively improved the platform.
In fact, Google says the Explorer Programme has been such a success that the version of Glass V3 tried a year ago is archaic compared with the current version being sold in the UK. So when we were offered the chance of a fresh eyes-on look at Glass, we couldn't resist the chance to check on Google's progress.
Design and build
The basic Google Glass design hasn't been changed since we last tested it and the majority of the upgrades are software based.
This means in its basic form Glass has the same slightly futuristic-looking metallic frame with a power pack at its rear and a mini high-resolution display on its front.
While predominantly designed for use with voice commands, Glass also has the same trackpad feature on its right arm, which lets you turn it on with a tap, or navigate through the device's menus with up-and-down strokes. It also has a camera button that lets you silently take a photo or shoot a video using its 5MP 720p camera.
In the past, while we've found the bare-bones Glass version comfortable to wear, we couldn't escape the feeling that the device made us look very strange. Even if we wore them in Soho, one of London's quirkier areas, we'd still feel self-conscious.
But Google has inked deals with a number of frame manufacturers to make Glass more friendly for public use, and to make the frames look more like regular glasses.
At the Glass UK launch event we got to see a number of different frames and were impressed by how good a job they did to make Glass look more subtle. The frames ranged from regular office specs to 1980s Terminator-style sunglasses.
While the glass technology is still very prominent, the frames go a long way to make them less noticeable, which, as well as making us feel less conspicuous, will also make them less obvious to potential thieves. Considering their hefty price tag this is a very good thing.
Operating system and software
As before, Google Glass runs using a heavily customised version of Google's Android operating system and is designed to offer users a similar experience.
Powering it up by leaning our head back, we were able to perform a variety of tasks. These included searching for a picture online, taking a photo, getting directions using Google Maps and opening various webpages simply by saying "OK Glass" followed by a command.
To get directions, for example, we said, "OK Glass, King's Cross Station", and then tapped directions on the trackpad to launch the Maps app. Once open the app presented us with a dynamic map showing our current location. Impressively we found the icon showing our location actually reacted to where we were looking, making it easy to know which direction we should walk in to get to our desired Tube stop.
Glass is also confirmed to integrate Twitter, Facebook and Google Now to offer users dynamic push updates. Though, as we found with our first hands on, we didn't get a chance to see how Google Now works on Glass, as it wasn't connected to our Google account.
While the innate services on Glass are impressive, we were more interested in testing out the wealth of third-party applications on offer. Google has been trying to increase developer interest in Glass since it first came up with the idea. One year since we first tested the technology, we have to say we were impressed with some of the applications on show at the Glass UK launch.
While we didn't get a chance to try some of the more enterprise, healthcare and education-focused apps Google has been ranting about, we did see a wealth of interesting products, chief of which were Word Lens, Star Chart and Goal.com.
Word Lens is an innovative application designed to make Glass translate any text you're looking at. The app is currently available in a number of European languages including English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. We were impressed with how well it worked.
The app could be launched at any time simply by saying "OK Glass: translate". Once activated we simply had to look at the piece of text and tap the language we wanted it translated to using the trackpad. We found not only was Word Lens accurate, it was also very quick and was able to translate posters and information boards in seconds.
Star Chart is a free application designed to offer users information about the stars. It does this using an augmented-reality display that offers dynamic feedback and information on any constellation the user is looking at, or in the direction of. The information is displayed as text or as an audio file that's played using bone-conduction technology. This is similar to the technology used in some hearing aids and is designed to let Glass play audio without using traditional speakers or headphones, by transmitting sound through the bones of the skull to the inner ear.
The Goal.com application lets users set up custom information feeds about football. The feeds can be set to push updates about specific games, teams or leagues to the user via Glass. While the feature isn't of direct business benefit, unless you happen to be in the football industry, the app is a good example of how Glass could theoretically be used to keep up-to-date with news 24/7. For example, how useful would it be for any IT professional or business user to have a permanent feed pushing news updates and industry analysis from V3 on Glass?
Google says the display offers users an equivalent viewing experience to watching a 25in high-definition screen from eight feet away. Initially we found the screen was slightly blurry and difficult to use at the busy launch event, but we soon sorted this by altering the angle we were viewing it from using the hinge connecting it to the metal frame. The screen seemed no better to us than non-HD TV quality, falling short of current high-end smartphone displays.
Poor battery has been one of the key gripes coming from the Google Glass US test group, with many complaining that it dies in hours. We didn't get a chance to test the battery life, but the spokeswoman on hand told us she generally gets about four and a half hours of use before having to reconnect it to a micro USB charger.
One year on from our first encounter with Google Glass, we have to say we're impressed. While the updates aren't groundbreaking it's clear Google is getting some momentum in increasing developers' interest in the technology. Hopefully with Glass now available in the UK this will continue and we'll see yet more innovations and app-development projects in the very near future.
By V3's Alastair Stevenson
23 Jun 2014
Retail giant Amazon finally unveiled its first ever smartphone, the Fire Phone, at a press conference in Seattle on Wednesday, ending months of speculation about its mobile plans.
Clearly having high hopes for the Fire Phone, Amazon has loaded it with a wealth of custom software and hardware features designed to differentiate it from existing handsets and help it carve a space for itself in the ever-competitive phone market.
However, even with Amazon's best efforts, if the Fire Phone is going to succeed in the top-end handset space it will first have to battle for attention with Apple's iPhone 5S – a feat that has proven beyond many smartphone makers.
Measurements and weight
Amazon Fire Phone: 139x67x8.9mm, 160g
Apple iPhone 5S: 124x59x7.6mm, 112g
Despite including some interesting design features, such as its four front cameras, the Fire Phone looks fairly unassuming compared with the iPhone 5S, and features a slightly chunky rubber-coated, not metal, frame.
The Apple iPhone 5S is also significantly lighter than the Fire Phone. Amazon claims the flipside of this is that the Fire Phone will be tougher than "average" smartphones. If true this could be a saving grace differentiating it from the iPhone 5S, which is prone to scratching and chipping.
Amazon Fire Phone: 4.7in, 1280x720, 315ppi HD LCD
Apple iPhone 5S: 4in, 1136x640, 326ppi Retina display
Amazon went to great lengths with the Fire Phone's display, loading it with custom Dynamic Perspective technology that it claims will offer users glasses-free 3D viewing experiences. Amazon has also worked to ensure the display is also great when it comes to picture quality, and claims the Fire Phone screen's 590 cd/m2 brightness and 1000:1 contrast ratio will let it match if not beat competing handsets, such as the iPhone 5S.
If true this will be a seriously impressive achievement as despite being slightly old, Apple's Retina displays are still among the best currently available.
Amazon Fire Phone: 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800
Apple iPhone 5S: Apple A7 chipset
When Amazon unveiled the Fire Phone, one of our biggest disappointments was its use of Qualcomm's previous-generation Snapdragon 800 chip. The use of the old chip, combined with the demanding software additions made by Amazon mean the Fire Phone may not match the performance of the iPhone 5S, which remains one of the fastest phones available. Still, we won't know this for sure until we've had a chance to properly benchmark and test the Fire Phone.
Amazon Fire Phone: Fire OS 3.5.0
Apple iPhone 5S: iOS 7
The Fire Phone runs on a heavily customised version of Android, which replaces pretty much all of Google's services with Amazon's and adds a wealth of custom features and applications. One of the biggest changes is the addition of Firefly.
Firefly is an information-gathering tool designed by Amazon, which lets you use the Fire Phone's camera and microphone to pull data from Amazon's database on a number of things including books, DVDs, phone numbers, QR codes, CDs, URLs, famous artwork and barcodes. If the feature works as well as Amazon claims, it could prove a key differentiator for the Fire Phone.
But even with these perks, if the Fire OS version is anything like the previous versions seen on Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets the iPhone 5S will be significantly more user friendly.
Amazon Fire Phone: 13MP rear camera with optical image stabilisation (OIS), f/2.0 five-element wide-aperture lens; 2.1MP front camera
Apple iPhone 5S: 8MP, f2.2 rear camera; 1.2MP front-facing camera
Amazon made a point to directly call out the iPhone 5S when discussing the Fire Phone's rear camera at the handset's launch event, claiming it will easily outperform Apple's flagship when it comes to imaging performance. If true this will make the Fire Phone one of the best camera options available in the Android ecosystem.
Amazon Fire Phone: 2,400mAh (11 hours of media usage)
Apple iPhone 5S: 10 hours of media usage
On paper the Fire Phone has a better battery life than the iPhone 5S. But companies' projected battery lives don't always ring true and many phones fall short of their listed times. As a result we won't know which phone has the better battery until we've had a chance to thoroughly test the Fire Phone.
Amazon Fire Phone: 32GB, 64GB
Apple iPhone 5S: 16GB, 32GB, 64GB
The Apple iPhone 5S comes with more internal storage options than the Fire Phone. However, its physical storage lead is countermanded by Amazon's decision to offer Fire Phone users unlimited space on its Amazon Cloud Drive storage service.
The Amazon Fire is due for release in the US on 25 July with prices starting at $200 on a two-year contract with AT&T, and $649 SIM-free. This indicates that if Amazon does choose to release it in the UK, the 32GB Fire Phone will be at least £450 SIM-free. While steep, this means the Fire Phone could still be cheaper than the iPhone 5S; its equivalent 32GB version retails for £629.
On paper the Amazon Fire Phone does have the chops to take on the Apple iPhone 5S. While it features a less alluring design and runs using a previous-generation processor, its 3D display technology and Firefly information service make it one of 2014's most interesting handsets. Whether this will be enough to entice buyers away from its more established and ever-popular Apple competition however, remains to be seen.
By Alastair Stevenson
20 Jun 2014
Samsung has described its new Galaxy Tab S, unveiled in New York earlier in June, as "industry-leading" when it comes to specifications. In light of the fact this was probably a dig at Apple's iPad Air, we've pitted the two tablets head to head on paper, to see which one offers the best features.
iPad Air: 240x169.5x7.5mm, 478g
Galaxy Tab S: 213x177x6.6mm, 465g
When Apple first unveiled the iPad Air, it was keen to boast that it was – at 7.5mm thick – the thinnest tablet available on the market. But Samsung has stolen the crown, with the Galaxy Tab S measuring a mere 6.6mm. Samsung's latest tablet, despite its larger screen size, is slightly lighter too, with the 3G and 4G versions tipping the scales at 465g and 467g, respectively.
iPad Air: 9.7in, 2048x1536, 264ppi LED-backlit in-plane switching (IPS) screen
Galaxy Tab S: 10.5in, 2560x1600, 288ppi Super Amoled screen
The iPad's screen – since the release of the third-generation model at least – has long been heralded as one of the best, with its Retina display boasting 2048x1536 resolution.
Samsung, however, has once again toppled Apple's flagship device, with its 10.5in Galaxy Tab S boasting a higher, "industry-leading" 2560x1600 touchscreen display. The screen also has Samsung's Super Amoled technology and a 100,000:1 contrast ratio, which should make for deep blacks and bright whites.
However, given that the screen on the Galaxy Tab S is larger than Apple's 9.7in, it remains to be seen which comes out on top in terms of quality.
It's worth noting that the Samsung Galaxy Tab S is also available in an 8.4in model with the same 2560x1600 resolution, pitting it against Apple's latest iPad Mini tablet.
iPad Air: iOS 7
Galaxy Tab S: Android 4.4 KitKat, custom UI
It's always hard to judge a winner in the software category when comparing an Apple and a Samsung device, as most people already know whether they prefer iOS or Android.
The iPad Air runs Apple's latest iOS 7 release, and will be promptly updated to iOS 8 once this is released later in the year. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S runs the newest version of Google's Android 4.4 KitKat mobile operating system, which it has heavily customised in its own user interface (UI).
Fans of the vanilla version of Android might not be too keen, as Samsung's custom UI sees the tablet's 10.5in screen stuffed full of widgets, custom applications and features. However, some of these will likely come in handy, such as Samsung's S Note app, the ability to answer a call through the tablet and its support for the tablet's on-board fingerprint scanner, adding an extra layer of security to the device.
Despite appearing on the flagship iPhone 5S, the iPad Air doesn't come with a Touch ID sensor.
Next: Processor, cameras, battery, pricing and storage
19 Jun 2014
Amazon has been trying to fully break into the hardware scene since the launch of its first Kindle e-reader. Yet, to date, despite the success of the Kindle, and the launch of its subsequent Kindle Fire range of tablets, for years there's been one serious gap in Amazon's portfolio – its lack of a smartphone.
Last night Amazon plugged this gap, unveiling its first-ever smartphone, the Fire Phone. Featuring a number of innovative software and hardware features, including a glasses-free 3D display, the Fire Phone has sparked debate within the smartphone industry, leading many to question how it will fare in the increasingly competitive market.
Apart from the Fire Phone's four front-facing cameras, Amazon's handset is fairly unassuming in its look and features a rubber frame, Gorilla Glass front and anodised aluminium buttons on its sides.
Amazon claims that, while the Fire Phone isn't waterproof and dustproof, like many of the recent IP-certified top-end Android smartphones we've seen this year, it is tougher and significantly more scratch resistant than the average handset. This could prove a key selling point differentiating it from key competitors, such as the HTC One M8 and Sony Xperia Z2, which are both prone to picking up marks.
A consequence of the Fire Phone's "tough" design is that it is thicker and heavier than competing handsets in its size bracket, measuring in at 139x67x8.9mm and weighing 160g. The Fire Phone's weight could be an issue for smartphone users who are accustomed to feather-light handsets, such as the 112g iPhone 5S.
The Fire Phone's 4.7in HD LCD 1280x720 315ppi screen is one of its most interesting features, with its custom Dynamic Perspective technology. This is designed to offer users glasses-free 3D viewing experiences in key applications, such as maps, the Fire Phone web browser and e-reader.
Amazon claims it creates the 3D effect by tracking the user's iris and head movements via the four front cameras and adjusting displayed images accordingly. If the technology works as well as Amazon claims, it could prove a key selling point for the Fire Phone when it is released. But its long-term appeal will be decided by how many application developers choose to take advantage of the functionality and use the newly released Amazon Dynamic Perspective software development kit (SDK) to make apps for the phone.
The Fire Phone runs using Fire OS 3.5.0. Fire OS is a heavily customised version of Google's Android operating system (OS) that radically redesigns the menus and pushes Amazon's Video and Music, Kindle Store and Newsstand to the front of the user interface. The OS also adds a number of custom-made Amazon applications, one of the most interesting of which is the Fire Phone's Firefly service.
Firefly is an information-gathering feature that can be activated anytime using a physical shortcut key. At a basic level Firefly uses the Fire Phone's rear camera to recognise and draw information from Amazon's database on a number of sources including books, DVDs, phone numbers, QR codes, CDs, URLS, famous artwork and barcodes. Amazon claims that the feature is so advanced it can also be used for contact-building, as it can obtain information such as phone numbers and email address from business cards, fliers and advertisements.
Firefly can also use the Fire Phone's microphone to access information on music or television shows as they are playing.
While some privacy advocates, such as anonymous communications firm Silent Circle, have questioned Firefly's potential snooping and profiling powers, the feature could be particularly useful for regular networkers, or those who often shop on Amazon.
When it comes to processing power, the Fire Phone does lag slightly behind most other 2014 flagships, coming loaded with last year's 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 CPU and featuring 2GB of RAM. Considering the fact that the newer Snapdragon 801 processor has been out for quite some time now, we're a little disappointed about the Fire Phone's use of an older chip.
Amazon made a big deal about the Fire Phone's 13MP rear-facing camera, claiming its multi-frame HDR, auto-focus, optical image stabilisation, f/2.0 five-element wide aperture lens and LED flash technologies will help it easily outperform competing top-end handsets. This is a pretty big claim considering the wealth of top-end camera phones to arrive this year, which currently include the Sony Xperia Z2 and Samsung Galaxy S5.
The Fire Phone is powered by a 2,400mAh battery, which Amazon lists as offering up to 11 hours of video playback off one charge. If true the Amazon Fire will have above-average battery life compared with most other smartphones, which usually offer between six and seven hours of video playback during our battery burns.
The Fire Phone is available with either 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. Most users won't have to worry about running out of space with either option, as Amazon has bundled the Fire Phone with unlimited free space on its Amazon Cloud Drive storage service.
The Amazon Fire is due for release in the US on 25 July, with prices starting at $200 on a two-year contract with AT&T or $649 SIM-free. There is currently no word on when and if it will be released in the UK, but the US price indicates that it will be around £450 SIM-free if it does.
At first look, the Amazon Fire Phone is very interesting. The Fire Phone includes a number of features that have never been seen before on a smartphone, such as its Dynamic Perspective screen technology and Firefly service. But it also features a few flaws that could put off smartphone buyers, such as its slightly heavy, boxy design and use of a previous-generation Qualcomm chip.
This makes it difficult to know how the Fire Phone will fare in its battle to draw interest from more established smartphones. Considering the Kindle Fire tablet's lukewarm reception, the potential privacy issues and the price tag, Amazon is likely to face an uphill struggle to push uptake of its smartphone.
By V3's Alastair Stevenson